Turn on, tune in, drop out, get lost

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The Independent Online
MAYBE it was the drug-dealing, or the scary dogs, or the reports of people having sex on the footpath.

Whatever it was, the city of Berkeley decided that even its celebrated liberal ideals had limits when it came to tolerating homeless people crowding out its most famous street, Telegraph Avenue. Earlier this month, the city went against 30 years of live-and-let-live tradition and sent the boys round.

For the past few weeks, police have picked up scores of young drifters and cleared them from the footpath in front of the avenue's book and record shops, once a symbol of the 1960s counter-culture that gave Berkeley its uniquely hippie flavour. About 80 people have been arrested, most of them stung by undercover agents, slapped in handcuffs and bundled into squad cars in an operation that even the victims admit has been pretty slick.

The shop owners are delighted, and nobody has heard consumers or residents complaining. Last week, an emboldened city council passed further ordinances banning people from sleeping on Telegraph Avenue and another big thoroughfare, and ordering dog owners to keep their pets moving.

All of which makes John Vance, an ex-hippie and tireless champion of the homeless, a bit of a lonely figure these days. "It's ethnic cleansing," he moaned as he surveyed the uncluttered junction of Telegraph and Haste Street. "They've arrested all these people and everyone thinks its okay. I mean, this is f---ing Hitler, clear-cutting everyone out of here."

The story is similar across the bay in San Francisco, where the pressures of nearly 15,000 people sleeping rough within the confines of a small, unusually pedestrianised city have prompted the authorities to order systematic harassment, increase the police's powers of arrest and, above all, keep the homeless constantly on the move. "We don't intend to criminalise poverty, but we do not want to become a city where people who hang out on the streets do so at the expense of the rest of us," San Francisco's mayor, Willie Brown, explained in a state of the city speech this month.

Since then, police have cleared bums away from the forecourt of City Hall, rousted several makeshift shelters in the Mission district, and picked up dozens of people for public drunkenness in the former Beat hangout of North Beach. Twice a week they descend on UN Plaza, in the centre of the city, and confiscate the blankets, modest belongings and supermarket trolleys of the homeless. The operation's official name is San Francisco Cares.

Even in Haight-Ashbury, a district still basking in the glow of its hippie past, business owners and residents have reached their limit. A year ago, Mr Brown ordered the vagrants out of a nearby stretch of Golden Gate Park, and they are regularly moved on from their favourite haunts on Haight Street. Residents who 30 years ago came to the Haight to hang out, live cheaply and drop acid show no hesitation in calling the police to kick a junkie off the front steps of their increasingly valuable homes.

Although the Sixties dream of hanging loose and embracing lifestyles of all forms is still alive, at least as a slogan to attract the tourists, it is a dream badly out of sync with the hard realities of the 1990s. The computer boom in nearby Silicon Valley has helped to send house prices sky-rocketing in San Francisco, all but eliminating low-cost housing in the city and piling pressure on the mayor's office to allow slum areas, hostels for the poor and old warehouses to be redeveloped for the yuppie class.

Whereas a student or drop-out could live in the Haight for next to nothing in the Summer of Love of 1967, anyone attempting to recreate that lifestyle now finds it simply unaffordable, and winds up on the street.

Add to that cuts in welfare and reduced access to medical care, and you have a crisis of unprecedented proportions.

Despite Mr Brown's election pledge to provide more cheap housing, far more buildings have been torn down than erected during his three-year tenure. Like many of his predecessors, he feels the need to counter San Francisco's reputation as a cosy, tolerant place for vagrants.

"San Francisco might be liberal compared to some places, but only for those who have the money," said Paul Boden, a director of the Coalition on Homelessness. "People raise money for peasants in central America, but they don't lift a finger for the destitute on their doorstep.

"This is a city that knocked down 3,000 cheap hostel rooms to build a monument to Martin Luther King, then installed surveillance cameras to keep the homeless out of the area at night."

In the rush to give his electorate the illusion of action on the homeless - he is up for re-election next year - Mr Brown may be exacerbating the problem and trampling on human rights as he goes, Mr Boden says. Police can jail anyone found drunk and disorderly for up to 30 days without a trial. They photograph the homeless and hand the pictures to liquor- store owners with the warning that they too face arrest if they sell to "intoxicated or incompetent persons".

"I know it's kind of crummy, but I can't help being happy if I come home and the police have cleared the homeless off my doorstep," said Christine Day, a long-time Haight resident. "If I could do anything more constructive, I would, but the problem's too big for individuals."

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